Rickshaw renaissance

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May 24, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

// So far, the city is thrilled with the recent proliferation of pedicabs. A smart approach to regulation aims to keep it that way. //

You’ve seen them around. Most are yellow with black padded seats, buzzing like bumble bees around Target Field during game days. Some are decked out in a familiar corporate logo, splattered with red bull’s-eyes. One of them is plain black, piloted by a 20-something driver in an old-fashioned costume and a handlebar moustache.

Pedicabs, those three-wheeled pedal taxis that combine the mechanics of a tricycle with the luxury of a chariot, are everywhere this spring. And while they aren’t necessarily new to Minneapolis, the last few months have seen the number of giant trikes mushroom, lured Downtown by the flood of pedestrians surrounding Target Field. It’s a sign that the Twin Cities have finally jumped on board with a green industry that has been growing exponentially — and often problematically — in cities large and small around the country.

But while we may be a little late to the pedicab game — pedicabs have operated in New York City since 1995, and in Portland, our rival in all matters cycling-related, they’ve been part of the urban landscape since 2002 — we seem to be ahead of the curve in policing it.

Regulations from the get-go

Minneapolis has had rules governing pedicabs in the books since 1984. But the original restrictions were so sweeping that they were lethal to business. Three-wheelers were banned from city streets after 10 p.m. They were banned from pedestrian heavy corridors like Nicollet Mall. Worse, they weren’t even allowed to stop at curbs, which made it impossible to pick up passengers. Most other cities had a complete lack of regulation when their pedicab industries developed. We had too much.

“It was a classic example of so much government regulation it was impossible to run a business,” said City Council Member Gary Schiff (9th Ward). “There were people who had licenses over time, but they all went out of business. By 2008 nobody was operating a pedicab in Minneapolis.”

Schiff spearheaded a 2008 push to ease restrictions after one of his constituents, a man named Koa Rosa, complained. Rosa sought to launch a pedicab company here after having worked lucratively as a driver in San Diego, where over 500 trikes are licensed. Schiff and Rosa began working together to rewrite city ordinances.

Since then, the legal barriers to a pedicab business have been reduced. An operator needs only a valid driver’s license, to prove he knows the rules of the road, and proof of liability insurance for each cab. Each cab must have headlights, break lights and turn signals, and fares must be clearly posted on the vehicle.

The financial barriers, however, are still high. It costs about $6,000 to put a rig on the street. The cabs themselves — most of which come from a Colorado manufacturer called Main Street Pedicabs — run about $4,000 a piece. An operating license costs $95 per vehicle per year, plus a one-time $122 new business surcharge charged by the city. And insuring each cab can get pricey. A twelve-month plan can cost upwards of $1,000 for each vehicle.

But start-up costs haven’t stopped entrepreneurs from making a go at it.

“Basically, what happened is exactly what we hoped would happen,” said Schiff. “We started with zero cabs in 2008. Now we’re up to 19. And I hope the trend continues to grow. It’s green. It’s a great alternative way to experience the city, and not just for tourists.”

But proliferation can pose problems. In New York City, where the number of licensed pedicabs has ballooned to 943, animosity between trikes and taxis has grown violent. A cap on the number of cabs is now being considered. In Portland, pedicabs now face harsher regulations following a flood of complaints over reckless drivers, and a fatal 2008 accident in Seattle that left a passenger dead. And in Denver, the two major sports venues, Invesco Field at Mile High and the Pepsi Center, have had to enforce designated passenger pick-ups areas, a response to mounting complaints about rogue drivers flying through parking lots, cutting across grass and getting too aggressive in soliciting customers.

In each of these cities, the effort to impose regulations after years of non-action has turned into a messy affair.

Schiff shrugs off the threat of too many pedicabs. “I would love to have that problem,” he said. Asked about rogue drivers, he said, “Since 2008, the only citations staff have issued to pedicab operators is once they saw an operator driving a pedicab down a sidewalk. Someone also ran a red light once. We’re much nicer than Portland.”

Kevin Smith, spokesman for the Twins, said that Target Field has not had any issues yet, aside from having to ask one cab to stop driving up the walkway connecting First Avenue to Target Plaza.

But city license inspector Richard Tuffs recalls a rocky debut for the trikes.

“The first weekend they hit the streets, I had lots of complaints,” he said.

Since the Twins’ home opener, Tuffs said the complaints have died down.

According to Deputy Director of Licenses Ricardo Cervantes, Minneapolis’ 19 licensed pedicabs are spread over four companies. Four of the 19 cabs — the ones covered in bull’s-eyes — are publicity vehicles for Target, registered to a Bloomington-based marketing outfit called Becore Promotions, Inc. Drivers offer free rides during Twins games to anyone going to or from Target Field.

The oldest licensed pedicab company, launched in May of 2009, actually had nothing to do with Target Field. Nolan Peterson, a 25-year-old former bike messenger with a degree in history, just wanted to combine his two biggest interests: cycling and nostalgia. He’s the guy in the old-fashioned garb and the handlebar moustache.

“My ideal thing is to do historical tours of the city,” said Peterson, who’s one-car operation, Peterson’s Pedicabs, also serves Uptown block parties and Northeast’s Art-A-Whirl. “I think it puts a smile on peoples’ faces to have a slower pace. Everything these days is instant, and sometimes it’s relaxing to just slow down for a second.”

But by far, the kingpin of the pedicab scene — the guy behind the ubiquitous yellow-and-black cabs — is 18-year-old Colin McCarty. A senior at Mendota Height’s St. Thomas Academy high school, McCarty owns 13 of the area’s 19 pedicabs.

Inspired by the prevalence of pedicabs in other cities — and unable to ignore the potential profits of the new Twins stadium — McCarty, with the help of his dad, Steve, launched Twin Town Pedicabs just this past March. He is the only local pedicab entrepreneur with an explicit intention to make money, saying he wants to “capitalize on what’s happening Downtown.”

McCarty rents cabs to independent contractors for a flat daily fee, from $30 for a weekday without a baseball game to $60 for the night of a weekend home game. Each driver takes their cab out and is free to roll anywhere Downtown — and to charge any rate they want.

According to Steve McCarty, who serves as Twin Town’s fleet manager, most drivers let the passenger determine how much each trip is worth. “People are a lot more generous when you leave it up to them.” Colin says that “it’s very common for people to make $200 or $300” per night.

“The money has been good,” said a young driver named Andrew, who just started with Twin Town in early May.

There’s just one problem: the mammoth exercise.

“The other day, though, when I got off my bike, I couldn’t walk,” he marveled. “I worked seven hours, which doesn’t sound too crazy. But I got off the bike, and I was trying to go into my girlfriend’s house, and I walked into a wall. It was pretty funny.”